Chances are that if you were linked here from another blogger pal, then you might be new. To those first-timers, “Hi, I’m Takuto, welcome to my anime cafe!” For the OWLS blog tour’s third monthly topic of 2020, “Devotion,” I wanted to give special spotlight to a recently rescued and released anime film that I’m sure many fans of the early 2000s era might recognize: Satoshi Kon’s magnificent Millennium Actress!
When we talked about fandoms, we show our appreciation and support by buying merchandise, cosplaying, writing fanfiction and etc. In fact, our appreciation can end up looking like a sign of religious worship. For this month, we will be talking about how certain characters express devotion to others, objects, and values. We will also be discussing how devotion can turn into an unhealthy form of passion and obsession and the implications of that.
I’ve got an interesting angle for this one that I hope you guys will enjoy. Thanks Lyn for the prompt!
A brief discussion of the 2002 anime film “Millennium Actress,” animated by Madhouse, directed and based on the original story by Satoshi Kon and Sadayuki Murai.
A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity
Have you ever been starstruck? You know, met or have worked with someone so cool, famous, or at least well-renowned in your area that you find yourself absolutely mesmerized by this person’s presence, their every word? Well, that was budding filmmaker Genya Tachibana to Ginei Studio’s star actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara, many decades ago.
Now, at the turn of the millennium, the legendary studio is set to be demolished. As an ex-employee, Genya decides to honor this occasion with a special commemorative documentary about Ms. Fujiwara herself. Having retired at the height of her career, the sweetheart of Shouwa Era cinema has lived a reclusive life up in the mountains. With the hour now at his chance, an eager Genya cannot be more excited to place his lifelong idol back in the spotlight one last time.
As a young lover of film and the industry, Millennium Actress quickly won my heart. Navigating through over a thousand years of Japanese history, the film seamlessly bobs and weaves through entire eras by showcasing all of the major roles Chiyoko has played throughout her prominent career. Nearly an hour and a half of carefully crafted cuts and quick visual tricks culminate in an experience that is as unique as it is autobiographical and personal to this now very tired, very humble elderly woman.
Chiyoko’s narrative gracefully guides us through the three major periods of her life: adolescent fame, her blossoming teenage years, and her still-yet accomplished adulthood. Specifically, we see how a young girl’s early encounter with love shaped the rest of her life. Driven by romance and adventure yet saturated with the pains of drama and missed opportunities, Kon’s film—with Chiyoko’s character—lives on today to inspire an entirely new generation.
A Fateful Encounter Under a Full Moon
From samurai to spacesuits, Chiyoko Fujiwara has played them all throughout her fabled career. To call her a person of passion would be an understatement; very few actresses can embody the wide range of personalities appropriate for acting as a woman living in so many different historic eras, as well as so many countless roles. And yet, our “millennium actress” is capable of being the perfect heroine for all time! So what drove the idol of Genya’s dreams to become a master of her craft? Well, like it might happen for any of us: she fell in love.
Before she became a household name, Chiyoko was caught in an incident which involved her helping an injured man. Although he supposedly may have been an “art thief” on the run, that didn’t stop childhood Chiyoko from being swept off her feet that fateful night. In their short time, they bond over simple life pleasures together, one of those being the moon.
Chiyoko looks up at the night sky, remarking how beautiful the full moon will be tomorrow. But the “man with the key” says that it is most beautiful now, for once the full moon is here, it only begins to wane. Whereas, it is under this this sky that you can spend the whole night looking forward to what the moon will become.
I think that this single, beautiful metaphor is representative of the entire film. I’m sure the mysterious man with the key who lives day-to-day may value this philosophy due to his risky occupation. But after her date with destiny, Chiyoko won’t ever be able to shake the man’s charm from her memory. In a long-winded and tiring search spanning a lifetime, Chiyoko scours all of Asia for any chance to reunite with the man. Even when she loses the one symbolic representation of their relationship—the key which unlocks “the most important thing”—she never stops longing for his love. She chases after him, and relentlessly so. After all, the chase kept her excited—-kept her living on the edge of love, forever—-and allowed her to feel eternally young at heart even as her hair grayed and memories began to fade.
It Was Never About the Destination
Hidden high up in this quiet mountain home is a thousand years of Japanese cinematic history just waiting to be narrated. Chiyoko’s deep reflections of the past take Genya and the viewer on an illusory journey through the saga of an actress’s career and her incredible filmography. As the actors in her life blend with the characters on screen, the tatami beneath their feet shifts from stage to stage, and the present completely blends with the past.
This is the extraordinary tale of a phenomenal actress who was so devoted to pursuing the love of her life that she stumbled through a legendary film career in the blink of an eye. Similarly, we also see how a fan’s positive and passionate devotion to his idol can lead to wondrous outcomes with the right intent behind them. Though the remarkable actress may have retired at the height of her career decades ago, Satoshi Kon’s directorial magic absolutely has you convinced that the curtain on her life’s stage has yet to fall.
Does Chiyoko ever see the man with the key again? Well, does it really matter? If nothing else from this story, what we come to understand is that when we have our eyes set on only one thing in life, the meaning for everything else can start to fall from our view. Perhaps, just perhaps, we had what we really wanted all along. Like the night before a full moon, maybe the longing for some things—the journey itself—is more satisfying than the destination will ever be . . .
And so, as Genya presents an elderly Chiyoko with the very key she lost so many years ago, she at last finds what “the most important thing” to her was. After a long pursuit spanning a thousand years, it finally dawns on her that perhaps she was never in love with the man to begin with—she was just lost in the tremendous thrill of the great chase.
After all, it’s the chasing after him I really love. — Chiyoko
Some beauty really is timeless. There’s so much cinematic and storytelling gold here that I could write a hundred—no, a thousand—posts on this film. I’m definitely glad I held off on this one for as long as I did, but even more so thankful to Eleven Arts and Shout! Factory for licensing this gorgeous film (the Blu-ray restoration is terrific)! Need I say more for now? Millennium Actress may just be the best film Satoshi Kon ever made, a certified “Caffe Mocha” for all those who know how I do things around here. But what are your thoughts on this timeless classic? I’d love to hear them in the comments!
This concludes my March 27th entry in the OWLS “Devotion” blog tour. My dear friend Mel (Mel in Anime Land) went right before me with a post on K-pop and idol culture that you can read right here! Now, look out for Megan (A Geeky Gal) this coming Monday, March 30th! Thank you so much for reading, and until next time!